The Collar Over The Lapel Was So '70s. What Was Up With That?

Fads | June 4, 2019

Left: John Travolta as Tony Manero in 'Saturday Night Fever' (1977). Right: Jack Nicholson at a movie premiere on January 31, 1978. Source: IMDB; Ron Galella via Getty

It's the '70s men's fashion look that no one is talking about: the shirt collar worn over or outside the lapels of a jacket. Today we tackle this old style head-on: The collar outside the lapels, what was up with that?

'70s fashion goes beyond bell bottoms, platform shoes and polyester. In some ways, those are easy, costumey signifiers of '70s style -- the outrageous stuff we see in vintage photos of Studio 54 and disco nightclubs. The collar-over-the lapel look was one that became popular among celebrities and regular folks of all ages and fabulousness. John Travolta did it, the Bee Gees did it, Jack Nicholson did it, Lee Majors did it -- but so did the guy placing $2 bets at the horse track. These days, it's a cheesy throwback associated with gangsters and lounge lizards, but it was legit once upon a time. Surely this is a look that will never come back. Right? Don't be so sure. (And don't call us Shirley.)

It's Actually A Classic

Left: Erroll Flynn. Right: Clark Gable with Rosalind Russell. Sources: putthison.com; eBay

There is a historical precedent for the collar-over-lapels style. We see it in some old Hollywood pictures of icons like Errol Flynn and Clark Gable. We can't say whether the commoners were on board with this look, but for the glamorous and handsome, it was a flourish of some sort that didn't have the negative connotation it would later acquire. While men did sport the collar over the lapel look in the ‘30s, they sometimes paired it with a cravat (rather than necktie), which makes sense. To really show off that sweet cravat (hey, we all have one) you need to unbutton a couple buttons and pull that collar wide open. 

The collar-out move implies a dressed-down, after hours look -- perhaps the fellow has ditched the tie or cravat and is letting those collar points out as a signifier that he's done with his workday and he's ready to get casual while remaining stylish. This is a theme that will recur. The suit and tie says "It's good to meet you, Mr. Jones, let us discuss business." The tie-less, collar outside style says "Whew, that Jones guy was a drag -- let's party."

Collars And Lapels At Mid-Century

Elvis Presley, seen here in 1956 and 1957, was known to do a cool mix-and-match, collar out, on the regular. Source: HBO; Tumblr

Wearing one's collar outside didn't go away -- in fact, you can find pictures of celebrities in the '50s and early '60s doing it. Men's fashion was beginning to deviate from the conformism that had defined it for centuries -- men were wearing colors and patterns, and the new fabrics were softer, sometimes silky or textured. If you had a stylish shirt you could wear a jacket to dress it up a bit, but the collars weren't made to be worn with a jacket -- they were soft, and likely to bundle or slide around under the jacket. Solution -- pull 'em up and wear 'em on the outside.

Let's Get Wide

Left: Starsky & Hutch are collaring even when they're not collaring criminals in a Teen Beat poster. Right: Hip Bob Hope putting square Johnny Carson to shame in the '70s. Source: pinterest.com; IMDB

From the mid-'60s into the '70s, things get wide. Bell-bottom trousers are a form of wideness, so are wide lapels and fat ties. And shirt collars get really wide, with the points creeping ever closer to the man's shoulder. Made of space-age fabrics like polyester and rayon, the collars were not just wide but sometimes floppy as hell. If you've ever tried to stuff a wide, floppy collar under a blazer, you know it's a foolish endeavor. It's just going to wad up, and allow the shirt to slide around. Without a necktie to hold everything in place, it's utter chaos under there. If you just bought the latest fashionable shirt from the local clothier and it's got six-inch collar spread, you've got to put that stuff outside.

An Attention-Getter

Sonny's tomato-colored jacket looks that much better with the manly explosion of black around his neck. Cher, you just got peacocked. Source: IMDB

With the loosening social and sexual mores of the '70s, and the rise of singles bars and discos, men were feeling the need to stand out from the pack. We saw men wearing all sorts of outrageous fabrics and patterns -- if you're headed out on the town, looking for love in all the wrong places, you don't want to look like some boring businessman. Remember that cool, stylish shirt you just bought? Who wants to hide it beneath your jacket when you can pull the collar out to signify your fashion sense to the ladies present?

In the language of lotharios, it's known as peacocking -- using some flourish to grab attention from the opposite sex, like a male peacock displaying his feathers. That neck-level splash of color or pattern might be just the plumage that gets her cooing over you.

Chest Out, Soldier

Album covers by Tom Jones and Leif Garrett, featuring prominent chests and bling. Source: Pinterest; Amazon.com

Finally, let's not neglect the obvious: That wide collar worn over the lapels pulls the shirt open more, which is what you want if you've unbuttoned the top three buttons to display your manly chest. Showing chest was another signifier of libido and prowess in the '70s -- whether you had chest hair or were smooth as a baby's bottom, it didn't matter. And speaking of getting your money's worth -- how about that necklace or medallion you bought, you wouldn't want to keep that bling hidden from sight. Much like women in their ever-plunging necklines were hoping to grab eyeballs, '70s men were looking to attract attention by showing more pectoral skin than buttoned-up squares from previous eras had.

What The Collar-Out Look Means, Post-'70s

Left: Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie in 'Christmas Vacation.' Right: Johnny Depp and Al Pacino in 'Donnie Brasco.' Source: Pinterest; IMDB

For the last 30-plus years, the collar-over-lapels look has been extinct except in movies. And when you see it in a movie, it's usually a signifier of something less-than-favorable. Gangsters, shysters, con men from '70s period pieces wear it -- and if you see it on a contemporary character, it implies that he's lost in the '70s, and possibly a bit of a crook himself. A collar over the lapels puts a character somewhere between Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco and Cousin Eddie in Christmas Vacation -- take your pick.

Surely This Style Will Never Come back. Surely?

Left: Clooney and Pitt in 'Ocean's Eleven.' Right: Street style at 2018 Pitti Uomo preview of Spring/Summer 2019. Source: IMDB; GQ.com

So we can consider the collar-over-lapels dead and buried, right? Gone to the fashion graveyard with the bell-bottoms and platform shoes that only get worn on Halloween.

Well... maybe not.

Brad Pitt raised eyebrows when he wore his collar out in Fight Club in 1999 and then again in Ocean's Eleven in 2001, causing some viewers to question their own fashion assumptions. It's not a style we thought we'd see again but, well, Brad Pitt looked good, didn't he?

(George Clooney's character didn't think so, remarking later in the film that "Ted Nugent called, he wants his shirt back.")

Even if Brad Pitt looked good, that doesn't mean everyone else, or anyone else, can pull it off. Extremely handsome men tend to look good in whatever they're wearing. Can we really say that this look is ready to come back, and that it might be a good thing?

Well, GQ seems to have given its seal of approval. In a look at the street style at the Pitti Uomo confab in Italy last fall, the men's fashion bible spotlighted some street style that it found very appealing -- and there they were, collars over lapels.

Even the dead come back -- that's fashion for you. Somewhere, Tony Montana, Tony Manero, '70s Jack Nicholson, Cousin Eddie and maybe even Errol Flynn are smiling.

Tags: Fashion In The 1970s | Jack Nicholson | John Travolta | Male Fashion In The 1970s | Remember This?... | Saturday Night Fever

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!